‘I was a violent footballer’

The Cast Stone

NO PLACE IN SPORT Violent scenes among players were once passed off as ‘part of the game’.  Pic: iStock

The Cast Stone
Michael Gallagher

I’ve been immersed in Gaelic football since the moment of birth. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I was actually three days old when a football was placed in the pram and four weeks later three football-mad priests blessed me. Two of those priests had won All-Ireland senior titles, the other had a minor medal in his keeping. Their religious hopes for me withered without trace but their love of football took root.
In my time on this earth, not a day has passed when football hasn’t occupied some part of that timeframe. Growing up, family life revolved around training, games, the club and the future. It was and will forever remain a passion for all of us. It’s part of what we are, part of what make us happy, part of everyday life the same as breathing.
Recently, I sat at my desk in the Media Centre in Croke Park and enjoyed the feast of football produced by talented players from Armagh and Galway. The excitement, exhilaration and enthusiasm experienced in the stadium was wonderful as Galway seemed to have the game won before Armagh powered back to equalise in dramatic fashion.
Then, as the teams were leaving the field at the end of normal time, all hell broke loose. A rolling maul of mayhem was played out before our eyes. It started as goading, bravado and bullishness before rolling on to headlocks, pushing and what looked like interference with the eye area of Galway’s Damien Comer.
Thankfully, such incidents are very rare despite what others might have one believe, given the huge amount of games played across the island and beyond.
Since the Croke Park incident thousands of words have been written, while podcasts, TV shows and conversations have dedicated untold time and resources to the issue.
In my view, the fight, maul, fracas was disgusting, uncalled for and has absolutely no place in sport or real life. I must admit to my personal shame, I was a violent footballer. I hit other players during games and was hit myself. It was passed off as part of the game, but now, as a dad, mentor, journalist and middle-aged, I see it in a completely different light.
Despite appearances, I abhor violence and see no place for it in general society or sport in particular. I cannot imagine hitting anyone these days no matter how intense a football match became and I most certainly cannot imagine anyone hitting me in the name of sport.
I’m very proudly involved with Ballina Rugby Club who play All-Ireland League games the length and breadth of Ireland. The physicality of those games makes me shudder at times, but anything other than decency is utterly frowned upon. Mountainous men thunder into one another for 80 minutes and do so in a savage but fair manner.
In GAA, there is sometimes a different type of attitude, which borders on tribal at times. I’m blessed to be involved with the Mayo Minor team and we consciously hold our players on the field at half time until the opposition have left the arena. We concentrate exclusively on playing football while avoiding all the ‘dark arts’. That makes it hugely enjoyable for players, management and spectators. It takes away the tension and stress of having to put on a show of bravado or ‘manliness’, which is a great relief.
Sadly, in Croke Park the Galway and Armagh players were caught up in a chest-beating fracas which had no place in sport. Once it started it was very hard to stop as more and more people raced in to ‘break it up.’ Nobody expected it, nobody wanted it and nobody benefitted from it. I’m sure if the players involved could travel back in time they would have avoided the confrontation. Hindsight is a great thing and makes us all experts.
One simple solution in Croke Park would be the use of dressing rooms on both sides of the pitch. This would completely eradicate the chances of a tunnel bust-up in the future. The recent incident will be dealt with by the GAA, and hopefully lessons will be learned going forward to ensure these scuffles become even more rare than they currently are.
That said, such incidents have no place in life, never mind sport.